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Using the perceptions of chemical engineering students and graduates to develop employability skills

Fletcher, Ashleigh J. and Sharif, Abdul Wadood A. and Haw, Mark D. (2017) Using the perceptions of chemical engineering students and graduates to develop employability skills. Education for Chemical Engineers, 18. pp. 11-25. ISSN 1749-7728

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Recent years have seen increased global industry sector demand for chemical engineers, subsequent growth of Chemical Engineering (CE) degrees, producing additional qualified graduates. The Confederation of Business Industry have regularly indicated that employers are dissatisfied with skills sets offered by graduates; a 2004 World Chemical Engineering Council (WCEC) survey of experienced and newly employed chemical engineers’ perceptions of their own work skills indicated highest importance for general transferrable skills, with technical knowledge ranked considerably lower. A decade later, we investigate whether chemical engineers, both employed and in education, have similar skills perceptions, by surveying CE undergraduates in penultimate and final years of study, and CE alumni employed in CE roles; all from the University of Strathclyde. Again, transferrable skills were perceived as most important to respondents; as undergraduates gained industrial experience, a shift in perceived relative importance of technical knowledge occurred, again similar to the WCEC survey, otherwise, alumni and students had similar opinions regarding perceived degree of learning of various skills. Alumni were more critical of the quality of education with regards to management and transferrable skills, while female participants perceived business skills as undertaught, feeling considerably overexposed to the potential of research compared to male colleagues. Focus groups showed that male undergraduates valued ‘technical knowledge’ and ‘communicating professionally’; by contrast, female graduates highlighted ‘initiative’ and ‘business skills’. Consequently, training sessions were developed, focussing on transferable skills identified as important by all groups, to be delivered during academic year inductions, aligning skills to year curricula.